Everything hurt. Mind, body, more of my body. I had organs that hurt and I wasn’t sure exactly why that would be the case. I was in bed, and my first attempt to sit up failed, in part because the bed I was in was too soft, giving too much when I was looking for leverage.
I was in one of the guest bedrooms, reserved for visiting nobles. The bed was large enough for five people to sleep in without touching one another, sporting a canopy draped with embroidered silk. The furniture was grown wood with gold elaboration that had no doubt been worked into it as it grew.
The only people in the room, at first glance, were Percy and the Snake charmer, sitting at the table at the window, with a chessboard and cups of tea between them. The chessboard itself wasn’t set up, the pieces absent.
Sub Rosa stood by the door.
My eyes took too long to find Ashton, sitting on the footboard of the bed, the red silk canopy that extended down the pillar of the canopy bed partially obscured him as he sat there, staring at me.
I remained where I was, staring at him. For his part, he was utterly still, unblinking, as he fixed his attention on me.
It was good to see his face. I was pretty sure it was his face, anyhow. A Lamb, a brother I hadn’t had nearly enough time to get to know, a friend, a briefly lived nemesis.
“Are you real?” I asked.
“I hope so,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re on the same page there.”
“Jessie said to tell you she wished she could have slept in with you, but she had things to do. Mary didn’t want to, and Lillian would have, but she has surgery.”
“Surgery?” I asked. “Because of me?”
Ashton thought for a long, agonizing moment, before he said, “Yes.”
I winced, looking away.
“But not very because of you. Distantly because of you. You got her talking to the Duke and the Infante learned about the Duke, and he punished them by hurting Lillian. That’s part of why it took so long for us to get back.”
I tried getting up again, rolling myself into a sitting-up position instead of relying on anything abdominal. I grimaced, found my bearings, and then slipped off the edge of the bed, easing myself down until my feet were on the cold wood floor.
Ashton hopped down and helped to support me.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’m not sure if you’re calling me sir to be ironic, when I’m not a sir or an adult you might call sir. It’s not polite if you are.”
“I used to, a bit, and then it became a genuine token of respect,” I said. “The joke became reality.”
We walked past Sub Rosa, who guarded the door. She smiled at me with lips that had been sewn shut, doing nothing while Ashton reached past her to open the door.
It was something of a relief to see the door open. A part of me had worried I was in a room like the one from Radham, a spatial representation of things, which kept my thinking in a particularly constrained space, instead of my thinking being so far-ranging that it became ambulatory, vocal, and argumentative. The hallway was empty, almost normal, but for a tear in the carpet that ran down the length of it, a gouge in one of the doors, and some bullet casings.
I felt my stomach clench with tension, which only reminded me of the pain in my midsection.
“Ashton, why does my side feel like I was kicked a few times by wild horses?”
“Because you sat on stairs for a really long time and you didn’t go to the bathroom. They said you hurt your kidney and bladder, doing that.”
Ashton gave me a shrug, his narrow shoulders moving beneath my arm. “It’s what they said.”
I might’ve lost it in an injury I couldn’t recall.
“I guess I thought my head was just trying to trick me into moving, so I suppressed it.”
“Yes. And you hurt yourself. You’ll get better. We have lots of doctors.”
Lots of doctors. My thoughts turned to the others- to the Academy-trained Beattle rebels, the Hackthorn rebels who we’d barely had a handle on, to the Lamb Doctors, and everyone else who had suffered because of the storm of chaos. I’d know it would be bad, but… it sat uncomfortably, thinking about just how far I’d sunk.
I wasn’t wholly sure I’d surfaced, either. I wasn’t in a room in my head, I was pretty sure, but the dangerous figures were still there, waiting.
“This way,” he said.
‘This way’ wasn’t toward the dining hall. Maybe for the best. It was down the length of the hall, in the opposite direction, and then up the stairs.
It wasn’t a place I’d really explored, past my initial perusal of Hackthorn. On the days I’d been inclined to visit, the weather had been poor. A rooftop garden with a patio, all sorts of unusual plants arranged on several levels, so that five individual groups could sit with enough of a barrier between them to be private, and so people could take their time walking around the garden, if they walked slowly.
Lillian was there, sitting, with a cup of tea on a saucer set beside her.
Part of the reason I hadn’t spent much time up here was that there wasn’t a particularly amazing view. We were high up enough that the water was only really water, without much in the way of waves, and even if we’d been on ground level, the landscape wouldn’t have been much to look at. Black wood and scorched earth.
There was only so long that one could sit and look at the clouds. Especially when there was a great deal to be done. It was a place to read on nice days, and Jessie had come to do that several times, but I suspected that she ended up spending more time napping in the sunlight than actually reading.
Lillian noticed our approach. She looked fine, if weary, but her posture was odd and I could see traces of orange-pink at the collar of her shirt. Disinfectant, some of which was on her neck.
“You’re out of surgery already,” Ashton said.
She patted the bench next to her.
“Can you talk?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, her voice soft.
I took my seat. I had to calculate and assess the appropriate and graceful amount of physical distance that a tense ex-relationship, hurt feelings and my own plunge into madness required. The presence of the obstacle that was the cup and saucer factored into it. I sat at a distance that meant I could have just barely touched her shoulder with a fingertip if I was of a mind to.
She picked up the cup and saucer as I settled with Ashton’s help.
“Okay?” Ashton asked me.
“Very okay,” I said.
“Do you want anything?” he asked me.
I thought of eating and drinking and the torture it would be for my strained body. “No thank you. Not just yet.”
“Oh, Lillian told me to tell you you need to urinate regularly. You might want to use a bush.”
“I’m right here, Ashton,” Lillian said, still speaking at half her usual volume.
“I know, but you said to say it and I’m remembering now that I see you, so I’m saying it.”
“Thank you, Ashton,” Lillian said.
“You’re welcome, Lillian,” Ashton said. Then he shifted his footing, “I’m going to go and tell the others Sylvester’s awake. We should be along in a little while, but it’s going to take a little while and I’m not going to run.”
“Thank you, Ashton.”
“You’re welcome,” Ashton said. “For the record I’m taking my time because you two should have some time to talk and get things worked some, I’m not taking my time because I’m slow or bad at running.”
“Thank you, Ashton,” Lillian said, with emphasis. She winced a little at the pain that small degree of effort caused.
“You’re welcome. I know you’re saying it that way because you want me to go. I understand, I can take hints.”
“You’ve been getting better,” Lillian said, touching her throat. I saw how the disinfectant transferred to her fingertips and checked my pockets for a handkerchief. I handed it to her.
“You hurt yourself. Try not to yell at Sylvester,” Ashton said. “You’ll hurt yourself more.”
“If you stay any longer, Ashton, I’m going to throw something at you,” Lillian said.
“Try not to throw things,” Ashton said, “You might hurt yourself if you exert yourself too much.”
Lillian twisted around, searching her immediate surroundings, no doubt for something in the order of a pinecone or small rock.
“Try not to make her upset, Sylvester,” Ashton said, ignoring the fact that he was needling her, inadvertently or no.
“I’ll try not to,” I said, my voice quiet.
“Thank you, sir,” he said.
He turned to leave, and I watched him go, my eyes narrowed.
Had he just pulled a clever line on me, or was that Ashton being Ashton?
“I’m fond of him,” Lillian said. “I haven’t gotten to see Ashton enough as of late.”
“He’s a good egg.”
“I’ve missed everyone,” she said, looking at me. Then, by some leap of logic, she jumped straight to, “I’m sorry I didn’t get my black coat, Sy.”
“What? No. Don’t do that, or I’ll think you’re somehow crazier than me.”
“I think that would be a feat,” she said.
“Are you alright?” I asked her. I touched my throat, to indicate. “Ashton said it was the Infante?”
“I’m not very alright,” she said. “It scared me more than almost anything. I’m fairly sure he let us go and I’m worried about why… But sitting is nice. Seeing you almost normal is nice.”
I had my doubts about that, but I didn’t voice them. I wanted her to have ‘nice’.
I had other doubts, that she was holding back on her true feelings, because she didn’t want to stress me out.
She went on, “I performed some of the surgery on myself, Jessie did some more, and I had more this morning, cosmetic, and to ensure I could speak without pain. Some of it affected the spine… I’ve still got some pain from that. It’s mild, but…”
She rubbed her arm, heel of her wrist digging in, as if she needed to press deep enough to make it felt bone-deep.
“Is it fixable?”
She nodded. “I’ll need another surgery. I’ll get it before we leave.”
Leave. That was a thing.
The intention had been for this to be a final stage, I’d hoped to prepare it, to make this the arena, as much to our favor as possible, and that had fallen through.
We would have to leave, fight our enemy on their turf.
“I’m drinking tea because I need fluids but I can’t drink too much too fast before I’m all healed up. The heat of it slows me down, and then when it’s cold I won’t want to drink it, because who drinks cold tea?”
I really liked the sound of her voice, even if it was quiet, or especially because it was quiet because that was a voice that had once been used when we slept in the same bed in her dormitory and didn’t want to be overheard. I liked the shape of her face and the way her hair had grown just a bit longer and framed that face. I wished I could stare at it more and hurry up my reconstitution of Lillian in my head, without actually staring at her and being creepy.
I tried to split my attention between looking at her and looking at the heavy clouds.
“How are you?” Lillian asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I really needed to see your faces. But I also think I shouldn’t feel as quiet as I do. I’m worried that they’re just mustering their forces.”
“The Snake Charmer, Percy, Sub Rosa, the Humors, Avis, Fray, Warren, Wendy… and so on. Dead soldiers, doctors, and ghosts. The Brechwell Beast pretending to be a girl, the Primordial pretending to be a boy…”
“It was a girl, I think, in retrospect,” Lillian said.
“There you go,” I said.
“What happens when they’re mustered?” Lillian asked.
“I don’t know. I think, even at their worst, they wanted to protect me. Or to keep me… intact, physically. Even if it meant carving through everything in my way. Maybe they’ll step in again if they think I’m in danger. Or if there’s an opening, or if I get jostled like a box of bugs, or after I’ve gathered my strength and they think I’m in good shape to do what they need me to do.”
“I see,” Lillian said.
“I feel very dangerously fragile, I hope that isn’t too unmanly a thing to say.”
Lillian shook her head, then winced again, touching her neck. She wiped at her fingers with the handkerchief. “No.”
“How bad is the aftermath?” I asked.
“It’s not good. But I think people are turning to your lieutenants for guidance, informing their own reactions based on how those lieutenants react. Helen, and Duncan are doing a lot of the talking right now. We’ll have to wait and see what they say, but I think if the people you put in charge stay, a lot of the others will stay. They might not trust you to be leader, though.”
“I don’t trust myself to be leader,” I said.
“Some will leave,” she said. “We had a brief conversation about that, before I went to get patched up. I had to communicate through gestures. I think nobody really wanted to, but we had to acknowledge that it might be tactically better to not let others leave.”
“Burn the bridge behind us, force cooperation?” I asked.
“We decided it didn’t make a lot of sense,” Lillian said. “That might change, depending on how the conversation goes.”
“Jessie and Mary are hunting down the experiments you freed. Jessie memorized the key phrases to bring them back in line, but they have to get in earshot to do it.”
“Not all of them have key phrases.”
“From what we were able to tell, you released four varieties of parasite, the flay stalkers, the shrieking ninnies, the rats-in-perpetuity, and the spiders of silence.”
“Naked, tall, underweight people with oversized heads, nimble and fast enough to stay out of danger,” Lillian said.
“Oh, I might remember them.”
“They’re loud, and they use that loudness to make sounds like shrieking babies, keyed to be as anxiety inducing and irritating to humans as is possible.”
“They’re pretty funny, yeah,” I said.
“Ferres’ big projects went after them when they couldn’t get at the students or faculty,” Lillian said. “Along with the rats-in-perpetuity, the spiders of silence, and all the others.”
“Those names. Rats-in-perpetuity, spiders of silence? Really?”
“They had pretentious names for the parasites, too, but I’m not remembering them off the top of my head,” Lillian said. “It’s a school of students with an artistic bent. You picked it as your target.”
“We wanted to fix Helen,” I said. “I wanted to fix Jessie. I-”
Jamie’s face flickered through my mind’s eye, incomplete, the memory fuzzed around the edges.
“Jamie,” I said, a thought as incomplete as the image.
“Are you seeing him?”
I shook my head. “I wish.”
“What are you thinking, Sylvester? Where did Jamie come from?”
“I… I went to pieces. Everything fell away, my thoughts mutinied against my critical thinking, and I think I realized things. About Jamie. About everyone, except maybe you.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t just your head playing tricks on you?”
“I’m not sure of anything,” I said. “That least of all. I really don’t feel as if I should be as lucid as I am and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m not even positive you’re here right now.”
The cup and saucer clattered slightly as Lillian placed them on the bench, to one side, so they weren’t between her and I. She scooted over, until her shoulder was pressed against mine, and then she lifted my arm and carefully set it over her shoulders.
“There,” she said. “Does that help?”
“Yes,” I said. I was fairly sure I was lying.
She still had one of her hands on mine, from where she’d moved my arm. “You’re cold.”
“A little,” I said.
“Let me know if you get too cold, we can go inside,” she said.
I don’t ever want to move or think, and I almost don’t want to say anything because I’m afraid I’ll break everything all over again. I’m afraid I’ll dispel the hallucination and I’ll be sitting on those stairs in the dark while rain falls on the glass overhead, my hands all bruised and hurting, my kidney and bladder failing because I’m afraid that having to go to the bathroom is just another head game.
I don’t want this to change or stop in any way, except…
…Except to have others here. To have Jessie, Helen, or Mary, or to have Ashton back and being odd, or even Duncan if it had to be him.
But this was good, even if I wasn’t sure what it meant or what it was supposed to be, besides skinship.
“What do you think you realized?”
“That the expiration dates are a lie,” I said.
With the physical contact, I could tell that she’d started a bit.
“That’s heavy,” she said. “But you remember that Gordon expired, don’t you, Sy?”
She asked it like it was really a possibility that I could have forgotten. I couldn’t blame her either.
“It’s not that we don’t expire, but… more that we expire because they want us to, we’re rigged to fail and then they postpone it if we’re useful. Or they hurry it up if we become a concern. It’s control. It’s power over us. The fact it happens all around the same timeframe, only a few years apart, that experiments like Helen and Gordon are all about building up to a mature stage and then that gets cut short?”
“The idea was that they would be pilot programs, and if they were viable then the Academy might try again.”
“With Ibbot? Why not just have him get it right the first time? He’s good enough.”
“He’s good enough but he doesn’t care. He can show it can work and leave enough in the way of notes for others to replicate for a second stage.”
“Or he cares,” I said. “Everyone and their mother knows he created her with the idea she would be a partner for him, a toy for him to use if he wanted to get his snail wet.”
“Ew, ew, no, ew. ” Lillian said. She physically squirmed under my arm. I squeezed her shoulders, and she drew in closer to me, her shoulder driving into my armpit as she shook her head. “I don’t want to think about Ibbot’s snail.”
“As an idea, it answers more questions than it begs,” I said.
“So that’s what Ferres was at,” Lillian said. “We heard fragments of it.”
“I feel like, once upon a time, when I first learned about the set end date for the project, not the expiration dates but that things would only last until around the time I graduated, I wondered why. And then we got busy with the baby-things and then the singing doctor, and the spider-things, and the Snake Charmer, and… I was new and emotionally exhausted. I didn’t think about things for a while.”
“But the expiration dates did come up.”
She shifted slightly, her shoulder still digging into my armpit as she nestled closer, “I don’t know, Sy. I didn’t think about it much. I thought the Professors knew enough, and I didn’t want to question them.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think it was around the time I ran away, that I realized. I’d read the files, the first time, and I realized, and I tipped them off, and that was around the time I left. And then… I can’t remember exactly it, but I let myself get caught, because I missed the Lambs and I missed Wyvern. They gave me a double dose. I think they molded my brain, to forget and to not think about it too much. Then they brought me back, and I looked for and found the expiration dates again, and that time I didn’t think about it, and…”
I trailed off.
“Maybe,” Lillian said.
“Maybe,” I said. “It’s a pretty terrible maybe. If it’s true then Ferres is right and I missed something important. I could have kept them from hurting Jamie or killing Gordon, or I could have taken us to Fray, or we could have worked something out and organized as a team, or…”
“You can’t blame yourself.”
“If I learned then and I ran away, then I was stupid and I let fear take over, I left the Lambs instead of telling them, and I couldn’t ever forgive myself if that’s true.”
“If it’s true, Sy,” Lillian said. “We don’t know. We can’t know. You can’t condemn yourself for something that’s as in doubt as this is.”
“Wanna bet?” I asked her.
She took my hand, her arm resting alongside mine.
I could feel the tremor, the twitch. I knew it was the pain from whatever the Infante had done to her spine.
“Hurts?” I asked.
“It’ll be fixed soon,” she said.
With my other hand, reaching over, I rubbed at her forearm, massaging it through her shirt.
“I’ve missed you,” she said, her voice even quieter than before.
“I’ve missed you more,” I replied.
“Wanna bet?” she asked. Her voice was quieter each time she spoke. There was something in the question and I chose not to hear it. It felt like she was fading away, and I was afraid of pushing her that one little bit further away.
But I used my one hand to massage her arm, and I listened to her words and I smelled her and I felt the warmth of her all along one side of me.
“You have the best hands,” she said. Her head leaned against my shoulder.
“It helps?” I asked.
“It helps,” she said.
We sat like that for a little while longer. Birds roosted on the railing a little ways in front of us. The clouds remained boring but I could have looked at them for days if it meant sitting with Lillian or Jessie or the others like this. Except maybe Duncan. Snuggling with Duncan would have been weird.
“I could do with massages in other places,” Lillian said.
“Is that so?” I asked, not sure what to say.
“Maybe you should stop, Sylvester,” she said. I stopped, keeping my hands where they were, one hand entwined with hers, the other on her forearm. “If you keep going I might pounce on you and I don’t know what I’d do.”
Her hand squeezed mine, hard.
“I’ve got to be fair to Jessie,” I said.
“I think I know what her answer would be if I asked, but I’m not sure of much of anything right now.”
“I know. You said. It’s okay. Do you want to let go of me, then, and we’ll figure it out later, if we figure it out?” she asked.
I didn’t want to let go of her for anything. My hands remained where they were, our arms entangled.
We were like that, silent and unwilling to move further away, when the others arrived.
“We arrive, we’re here,” Helen called out. “We bring snacks, tea, good company, and agendas.”
Bright and warm and very Helen. My hands released Lillian’s hand and arm.
When she turned up, rounding the corner, she was smiling, very much Helen, intact.
“My dears,” she said. She set a tray down on a nearby table.
“You’re in a good mood,” I said.
“I hunted, and it wasn’t perfect but it was good, and I’m sated for the now. I’ve got snacks made by our Possum-Helen, and I’ve got the Lambs,” she said, bright and warm. “What more could I want?”
Her hands touched the sides of my head, her fingers running through my hair. She kissed my forehead.
As Ashton approached with Lara and Nora, the two twins now asymmetrical, Helen pounced on Ashton, throwing her arms around him and lifting him bodily off the ground. The twins flinched away.
One of the two had had a growth spurt, and was a foot taller than her sister. The shroud of clothing that covered her now covered her lower face, her overlong neck, and the two long forelimbs that now stretched from shoulder to toe. The dangling claws scuffed the ground and the edge of stairs as she walked down the path to where we were in the garden.
“I brought them,” Ashton said, belaboring the obvious.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“Where do we sit?” the smaller of the twins asked.
“Find a compost heap and sit in it,” the larger twin said. “Then you might grow some, and you’ll smell better.”
The smaller twin gasped.
“Be nice, Nora,” Lillian said.
“I am being nice, I’m giving her advice that’s sorely needed.”
“She’s just bitter because she’s a piteous miscreation of science,” Lara said. “It’s why we left the Academy, because they were going to put her down for being so grotesque and disappointing to look at.”
“Says the runt who hasn’t grown yet.”
“I will say so, thank you very much,” Lara said, before turning to me. “There’s really no justice in this world if the Academy goes unpunished for bringing her into existence.”
“You think so, huh?” I asked.
“It’s one of the great crimes against humanity, edging out the red plague and the genocide out east.”
Nora lunged, falling to all four limbs, face thrust at Lara’s. Her voice was a growl. “I could eviscerate you. You’d be prettier.”
Lara tittered with a laugh. It took me long seconds to read past the hostility in Nora’s body language and see that she was laughing too.
Lara threw her arms around her big sister’s long neck, hugging her, and rocked left to right.
Mary approached with Abby and Quinton, and broke away from Abby to go straight to Lillian, sitting at the edge of the bench, her focus on Lillian’s recently mended throat. They exchanged murmured words.
“Did we interrupt?” Abby asked me.
Her eyes moved between Lillian and me.
“No,” I said. “All good.”
“Good,” she said.
So it was. Jessie, Emmett, and Duncan were the last to arrive.
I stood from my seat with some difficulty, and wrapped Jessie in a hug with less difficulty.
“Brought them,” she said. “I missed you.”
I nodded. The moment, having everyone here, it made words catch in my throat.
“I worried so much,” she said.
I nodded again. Me too.
It wasn’t just that I’d worried for my sake. I’d seen things. My head had turned against me and it had subjected me to things, doubts given life, mind games. In the midst of it, Jessie had died far too many times. She’d died more than any of the others. She had suffered implied fates that would have made death a kindness.
She’d been the one they had repeatedly used to try to convince me that the Lambs were back, that I could let my guard down.
The others were getting settled, Lara settling in Nora’s lap, Abby sitting on the short wall that bounded the soil of the garden to one side of us, Helen at the table, arranging tea and snacks. Jessie sat next to me.
“A lot of them want to leave,” Duncan finally said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Shh,” Jessie said. She gave my hand a squeeze. “It’s okay.”
“The question came up, there’s no place to go. The Crown has a stranglehold on the Crown States, there aren’t many options. Some of the Hackthorn students think they could backtrack on their betrayal of the Crown, but… it’s hard. They have fellow students who remember them defecting. There’s some thinking along the lines that the ones who remained loyal might stay silent on that if they’re allowed to go, but… that’s a lot of mouths that could talk.”
“Which brings us to our next point,” Jessie said. “They know. About the block, about the nobles. And we’ve made it clear to them, well, Sylvester made it clear but we made sure it was crystal, that if one mouth talks, the Crown might erase the problem. So like it or not, they’re cooperating. It’s reluctant assistance, but it’s assistance.”
Others approached. Shirley, with Bo Peep. Davis. Bea, the Treasurer, Mabel, Junior, and Gordeux.
“Just catching them up,” Duncan said. “People are mostly willing to go along with us?”
“Looks like,” Davis said. He turned his attention to me. “You alright?”
“Oddly so,” I said.
Jessie spoke, “We gave you a half-dose of Wyvern, in the hopes it might help you get your mental house in order, while you were unconscious. Duncan’s idea.”
I shivered at the notion. I liked being in control… but I wasn’t sure if I would’ve made the right decisions, being like I was, either.
“I didn’t know that,” Lillian said. She glanced at me, wary. “I don’t know if I would have recommended it.”
“It’s done,” Duncan said. “I don’t know if I would have recommended it in the light of day, either. But I didn’t like seeing you like you were. You just kept endlessly asking about what you’d done or hadn’t done, who was alive or dead, who had been tortured to death or not. You’d stop for a bit and then start. We drugged you to knock you out because you got so anxious, and it took three tries to get the dosage right, even with your native resistances. I thought… if sleep helps us reorganize our memories and feelings from the day prior… well, maybe Wyvern might help for a bigger endeavor on that front.”
“It doesn’t quite work like that,” Lillian said. “But it’s not wholly wrong either.”
“Okay,” I said, still uncomfortable with the idea. It overlapped too much with my thoughts of the double dose and the brainwashing, even if it had been a half-dose outside of the usual schedule, by people who meant well.
“The Infante isn’t coming. Almost none of the people we really were invested in getting into Hackthorn are,” Jessie said. “But some are. Professors from smaller Academies. From what I was able to pick up and listen in on, we’re approaching the final days.”
“Final days?” Abby asked.
Lillian spoke, “Some Academies will continue running, to look after the Tender Mercies and various other creations who are designed to survive and patrol the wasteland that the Crown States is going to become. They’ll maintain control and look after things. A skeleton crew. Hayle is going to be one, looking after Radham. But everyone else is going to leave. They’re interested enough in the rumor and lies we’re spreading that they’re making this one of the last ports of call. They’ll go from here to Trimountaine or vice versa and then make their way over to London.”
Bo Peep was watching Quinton, tuning out almost half of the discussion. At a nudge from Shirley, she crossed the little section of garden, giving a wide berth to Lara and Nora, before settling next to Abby and Quinton. Abby picked Quinton up and scooted over to sit with her thigh touching Bo Peep’s, and set Quinton down so he was lying across their laps. Bo Peep’s hands hovered in the air, as if she couldn’t bring them down without touching Quinton, but she was too overwhelmed to make even incidental contact with the lamb.
“I’ve left us in bad shape to do what we planned on doing,” I said. I watched as Abby took Bo Peep’s hand and brought it down to touch Quinton’s neck.
“We’ll manage,” Mary said. “We have to. There’s no other choice.”
We have to. We didn’t have much more of a path forward than the students here did.
“They have to cross dangerous ground to get here,” Duncan said. “Bandits, the desperate, rebels like Mauer. So even if it’s not the targets we want, it’s going to be a scary number of lesser nobles, professors, and all of the forces and top-tier creations they see fit to bring with them as they aim to get safely over here and then cross the pond.”
“And the Infante?” I asked. I saw a flicker out of the corner of my eye and glanced over. “The Duke? The top-tier Professors?”
“We’ll figure something out,” Duncan said. “But that comes after. For now we need to pull together, get a plan in motion, and survive the next week.”
“We’ll manage,” Mary said, once again.
I almost agreed. Almost. Before I could indicate or speak something to that effect, I saw the shape out of the corner of my eye once again.
I hadn’t seen many of the hallucinations. The people around me were no longer monsters, the Academy looked almost normal. The dose of Wyvern and the unconscious reconstruction of things had no doubt gone a ways toward that. It had helped me piece my mind partially back together, and seeing and coming into contact with the Lambs had helped me piece my heart most of the way back together.
But it had come at costs. A lowering of defenses, doors opened I’d meant to keep shut. I no longer faced a legion of devils that nobody else could see. I faced a singular entity.
The Infante stood at another section of the garden, watching the clouds, his hands clasped behind him, silent.
I should tell the others.
I can’t tell the others and destroy this small happiness we’ve found here.
“We should talk plans,” Jessie said, giving my hand a squeeze. “There’s a lot to do. A lot of things to repair, some literal, after the warbeasts and experiments stalked the halls. There are scripts to put in place, to borrow something from Ferres, we need tools, we need organization.”
I remained where I was, frozen, trying not to look at him even as he drew my attention with the smallest of movements.
Mary spoke, “Lillian can coordinate the science angle, the tools, the experiments we’ll need. She knows enough about a variety of things to know what’s up. Right? And you can coordinate with the Beattle rebels? You know how Lambs think and you’ll have a sense of how they think.”
“Right,” Lillian said.
“I can do the same with the soldiers, train people to fight, how to think in a skirmish or a battle,” Mary said. She looked more at ease than I’d seen her in a while. She looked excited at the prospect. “If there’s no objection?”
“None,” Bea said, Davis’s utterance only a hair’s breadth from matching hers.
Movement in front of me made me flinch.
Helen. With a cup of tea on a saucer, cookies arranged in a half-circle around the rim.
“It’s medical tea,” she said. “It’ll help your kidneys stop hurting. The cookies aren’t medical, but they’re important too.”
I took it wordlessly. She gave me a lingering, almost concerned look before turning her attention to higher priorities – to more tea and cookies.
I tried to shake off any look of terror, to control my breathing and consequently my heartbeat, so I wouldn’t give others reason for concern. Only Abby might notice, with her eye to body language, and Bo Peep and Quinton had her full attention. I hadn’t seen much of her, but I’d never seen her more in her element than I saw her in this moment. It had been too long, by that same measure, since I’d seen a smile on Bo Peep’s face.
I looked in the direction of the Infante, and he was gone from his spot.
I nearly dropped my tea and the carefully arranged cookies when I saw him, standing by the railing, only a short distance from the others, his back to me. He’d moved closer.
Not trusting myself to speak, in case I betrayed my fear and betrayed this moment, I ate my cookies slowly.